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Great Lakes Burning River

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In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. Apparently this wasn't an entirely uncommon occurrence on the highly polluted waterway, as river fires had been reported there as far back as 1868. But the one that happened about a century later caught the interest of Time magazine, who described the lowly Cuyahoga as a river that "oozes rather than flows". A few years later, the Clean Water Act was passed and everyone lived happily ever after. Oh, and Great Lakes Brewing Company made this beer in honor of the Cuyahoga, the river that burns!

Now, given the atmosphere that the beer's name evokes, I would assume this would be something like a gloopy stout, or an extremely high ABV monster, or a spiced ale of some kind. But no, it's actually a pale ale. Ain't nothing wrong with pale ales, but methinks they could have come up with a more fitting name for this one (or a more fitting beer for the name). In the end, as I always say, it's what's in the bottle that counts:

Great Lakes Burning River

Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale - Pours a very nice looking, clear golden color with a finger or two of white, fluffy head. Smells of earthy, herbal hops, with a sweetness also present. The taste features those earthy, herbal hops from the nose, but ups the ante with a little bit of spicy hop character in the finish, along with some light bitterness. Now, they say this beer is "assertively hopped with citrusy and piney Cascade hops", but I'm getting approximately none of that character out of this beer. Not sure what it is about Cascade hops, but they feel almost Jekyll and Hyde to me. Sometimes I get the earthy, herbal character out of it, like this beer, but other times, I get an almost Simcoe-lite feel (which makes sense given lineage), such as in Victory Ranch S. As the beer warms, a little bit of citrus opens up, but not a ton. Mouthfeel is light bodied, moderate carbonation, and relatively easy going, though not quite quaffable. All in all, a very solid pale ale... but not really blowing me away or anything. It's apparently a big award winner, and again, it's solid, but not really my fave... B

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip glass on 6/22/12.

So Devil's Milk aside, this week's posting is shaping up to be filled with solid, but mildly disappointing brews. Things I was expecting more out of. Great Lakes always seems to fit that bill for some reason, though I've also had some stuff that's surprised me. I'm sure they'll be making more appearances on the blog, at least in beer club posts, as they seem to be a popular target there... Will tomorrow reverse the trend of B or B- rated beers. Well, only one way to find out...

Mean Old Tom

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I've already mentioned my Pavlovian response to fancy packaging (boxed bottles, fancy labels, wax dipped caps, etc...), but I also have to admit that there's something to the minimalism of Maine Beer Company's label designs. Simple fonts, straightforward description of the beer, maybe a little representative pictogram, but their labels are clearly dominated by whitespace. Sometimes straightforward trumps fancy, and you have to admit, Maine's simple bottles do stand out on a shelf.

I suppose it also helps that those crazy neo-hippies from Maine have brewed some pretty fantastic beer. In this case, we've got a "stout aged on natural vanilla beans" which sounds rather good, but it didn't quite work out as well as I'd hoped:

Maine Mean Old Tom

Maine Beer Co. Mean Old Tom - Pours a very dark brown, almost black color with a finger of tan head. Smells of deep, dark malts, maybe a little roast coffee. The taste also features that deep, dark malt character with less roast and maybe some notes of chocolate making an appearance. Not really getting any vanilla in the nose or taste. Mouthfeel starts off medium but sorta thins out as I reach the finish. It's certainly not light bodied, but it's on the lighter side of medium. Overall, it's fine, and I'm enjoying it, but it's not something that's really pushing my buttons... It reminds me a bit of my homebrewed stout, though this is certainly better than that... B-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a tulip glass on 6/15/12. Bottle sez 050312 (presumably bottling date) and 6 (batch number?).

Despite being a little disappointed by this one, I'm still looking forward to trying... pretty much anything else that Maine has available. I've got a bottle of MO in the fridge as I write, and it probably won't last the weekend. At the rate I'm getting through reviews, you'll probably read about it in a month...

Dragon's Milk

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It's not exactly a secret that I love me some bourbon barrel aged beers, so it will come as no surprise that I really enjoyed this offering from Michigan's New Holland Brewery. Maybe I've got a problem, but there's just something magical that happens when you put beer into a bourbon barrel for aging. I just love the added richness of flavor, complexity, and thick, chewy mouthfeel that comes with the territory.

Dragon's Milk is aged in old Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels for at least 90 days. As previously discussed, this is partially due to the fact that the legal definition of Bourbon says that the whiskey must be aged on new oak, leading to a big secondary market of used oak barrels that brewers can latch onto. But apparently New Holland can only use those secondary Bourbon barrels once to age beer. "Second-use barrels don't give the beer the same character," says New Holland's Brett VanderKamp.

But this is where things get really intriguing. New Holland also runs a small, artisanal spirits business, and they've started to use their old Dragon's Milk barrels to age their whiskey... Consider my mind blown. What a great idea. When I was in line for Dark Wednesday, some beer nerds and I discussed the possibilities of this very thing (aging whiskey in beer barrels). I didn't think it would happen so soon, but it's a welcome development. This is apparently still in the prototyping phase, though both Jim and Don from the Beer and Whisky Brothers managed to get a hold of some of the stuff. The verdict: everyone seems to love it. It seems something magical happens when you put whiskey in a beer barrel for aging. I absolutely need to get my hands on some of this stuff.

In the meantime, I'll have to make do with some regular old Bourbon barrel aged beer:

New Holland Dragons Milk

New Holland Dragon's Milk - Pours a very dark brown color, almost black, with a small amount of tan head. Smells fantastic. Lots of roasted malt, caramel, milk chocolate, vanilla, bourbon, and oak in the nose. Taste starts off very sweet, rich flavors of caramel, milk chocolate, vanilla, light bourbon and oak. Just a hint of roasted malts. Mouthfeel is full bodied and chewy, perfectly balanced richness and carbonation. Goes down surprisingly easy, maybe a bit of alcohol warming when you drink quickly, but it still doesn't feel as strong as it is... Overall, fantastic beer! A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a snifter on 6/1/12.

I have no idea if and when this beer barrel bourbon will be available, but if I get a chance to try some, I'll be sure to let you know. In any case, my consumption of barrel aged beers will probably continue to be unhealthily high. Summer seems a little less barrel-agey, but don't worry, I'm sure I'll be hitting up plenty of interesting stuff in the coming weeks.

Art of Darkness

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What's with the rash* of Joseph Conrad references in beer names? First came the beer I'm reviewing, Ommegang's Belgian Strong Dark Ale, Art of Darkness (despite all their wizardly references to spellbinding and mystical incantations, we know they're referencing Conrad, right?) Then, more recently, The Bruery released Tart of Darkness, a sour stout aged in barrels. What's next? Clown Shoes making a beer called Fart of Darkness, that's what. Okay, that was a cheap shot, so let's move on...

Ommegang was my first introduction to really good beer (many moons ago), so I'm always on the lookout for new beers from them. However, one of the weird things about Ommegang is just how fantastic their core stable of beers is. In contrast to most other breweries, their core lineup is pretty much all great beers (with a potential exception in the recently added BPA). Oddly, their one-off limited-edition brews tend to be a bit on the underwhelming side. This isn't to say that they're bad, just that they're not as transcendent as, say, Three Philosophers. A few of the limited edition brews have struck a nerve though, notably Gnomegang and Tripel Perfection, so I feel like my compulsion to try their new stuff is not unwarranted. So here we go:

Ommegang Art of Darkness

Ommegang Art of Darkness - Pours a very dark brown color with plenty of dark tan head. Smells of bready Belgian yeast. A little spiciness apparent, but also something lighter, almost fruity. Taste is sweet, some dark malt character, but not much in the way of roast. Plenty of yeasty spiciness though, and the sweetness gives way in the dry finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied but highly carbonated, almost effervescent, and relatively dry, making this go down easy. No indication of booze at all, which is interesting given the ABV. Overall, very nice, well balanced beer! B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.9% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a goblet on 6/9/12. Bottled on 02/27/12. Best by 02/2015.

So where does this fit in? I'd say, towards the top of Ommegang's limited edition brews, if not quite the pinnacle. Quite enjoyable though, and well worth a try. Up next from Ommegang, a rather old limited edition brew I've been squirreling away in the basement for, sheesh, has it been two years? We'll see. And I've been seeing this Biere D'Hougoumont all over the place too, and I'm betting I'll get me a bottle of the stuff at some point.

* As recently established, it only takes two examples to constitute a "rash" of something.

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

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Back when my beer nerdery was going into overdrive (let's say 2009ish), I saw a few bottles of this at the store and balked at the high price tag ($8 for a 12 ounce bottle). Little did I know that I wouldn't even see another bottle of the stuff for two years (this delay was apparently exacerbated by a bad batch that had to be dumped, as portrayed on the short-lived Brewmasters tv show). So when Dogfish Head started releasing the new batch last year, I jumped on the opportunity. I had some on tap and picked up a few bottles, price tag be damned*!

I don't always love Dogfish Head's wacky shenanigans, but I usually find their stuff interesting and worth a shot. And say what you will about their shameless gimmickry, but Dogfish Head knows what it's doing when it comes to IPAs, and their "minute" series is a sorta rite of passage amongst hopheads around here. I've already talked about the history of the massive 120 Minute IPA, but one thing I never quite understood was the beer nerds' dismissal of this beer when it's still "young", claiming that it's "undrinkable" unless it's been aging for at least two years. When I had it on tap, I had no idea what these dorks were talking about, but now that I've cracked one of my bottles, I may have an idea what they mean (even if "undrinkable" is an overstatement).

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA - Pours a beautiful, mostly clear golden orange color with a finger of white head. The smell is filled with caramel malt and a ton of hoppy citrus notes. The taste is very sweet, plenty of that rich caramel malt going on and again with the citrusy hop character, but not a ton of bitterness. What there is a ton of, though, is alcohol. Very boozy stuff, moreso than I remember from last time, though it's not undrinkable or anything, just different. Mouthfeel is full bodied, almost chewy, and again, there's a very boozy heat here. This is actually pretty easy to drink, but it's still just a sipping beer due to the booze. Overall, a very complex, interesting beer that's well worth seeking out. Like last time, I find it hard to rate something this weird and experimental, but for now I'll give it a B+, a slight downgrade, but I have a few more bottles of the stuff in my cellar, so we'll see how this ages. I think that age would mellow all that booze out a bit, making this a much better beer...

Beer Nerd Details: 18% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a snifter on 6/2/12. 2011 vintage.

I've got two more of these 2011 vintage bottles that will most likely sit in my cellar for those two years (or more) the nerds were talking about. This is generally made easier by the fact that it's such a high ABV beer. I'm looking forward to it, as well as the bottle of 2010 World Wide Stout I've got sitting around (another 18% monster). Alas, most of Dogfish Head's recent releases have not seemed very attractive to me...

* Is it sad that I now find this to be only moderately priced? Still, I probably made the right decision when I was in my beer nerd infancy, as I don't know if I would have appreciated it as much as I do now...

Lost Abbey Deliverance

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How is it possible that I've only had (and reviewed) two Lost Abbey beers since starting this blog? I'm really at a loss to explain this. I love me some Belgian style beers, and there are only a few American breweries that really specialize in that realm, so I'm not sure about the cause of my neglect. It's not like the stuff isn't readily available in my area, so I figure I should rectify this situation before the beer dork police knock down my door and confiscate my beer.

Lost Abbey shares its facilities (and staff, including head brewer Tomme Arthur) with Port Brewing and in a very real sense, they're simply two different approaches taken by the same brewery. Lost Abbey is inspired by the monastic brewing traditions of Belgium, but since no actual Abbeys were harmedinvolved in the production of the beer, they called it a "Lost" Abbey. They've got quite a good reputation and a large catalog of beers that, again, I should really become better acquainted with...

And this looks to be a spectacular start - a blend of two other beers: bourbon barrel-aged Serpent's Stout and brandy barrel-aged Angels Share (I've had the bourbon barrel-aged Angel's Share on tap before, and loved it, even if I thought it was a bit hot).

Lost Abbey Deliverance

Lost Abbey Deliverance - Pours a very dark brown, almost black color with a practically non-existent head. The nose is full of caramel, oak, and vanilla, with plenty of booze - the bourbon and brandy are apparent. The taste delivers what the nose promises. Caramel, oak, vanilla, brandy, bourbon, and booze, booze, booze. Mouthfeel is smooth, thick, and chewy, barely carbonated... but there's enough to make it palatable. Lots of hot booze and warming alcohol character, making this a beer I want to sip and savor slowly. Overall, a wonderful beer, perhaps even better than the simple Bourbon Barreled Angel's Share (though that may be more due to the age or bottling than the blend). A-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.5% ABV bottled (375 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 5/27/12. 2011 vintage.

I actually have a bottle of the bourbon barrel-aged Angel's Share in the cellar. Given that I found it a bit "hot" on the first go around, I thought I'd give it some more time in the cellar. In the meantime, I certainly have a lot of other Lost Abbey beers to get through, so while I don't currently have any in the pipeline, I'll almost certainly be hitting some up this summer.

YuleSmith Summer Holiday Ale

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In an effort to confuse and confound their customers, Alesmith makes two different beers with the same name: YuleSmith Holiday Ale. One is a hoppy red ale released during the winter holidays, which makes a certain sorta sense. The other his a double IPA released in June, which... doesn't. The word "Yule" is derived from a Germanic winter festival that was absorbed by Christmas (like a lot of holiday traditions), so the summer one doesn't really fit unless you consider the dubious holiday of Christmas in July an event worth celebrating. And if you look at the bottle, it seems to be portraying the 4th of July, what with the fireworks and all (and Christmas in July is usually celebrated on the 25th of the month). Alesmith makes good beer though, and this one has quite the reputation, so who am I to complain?

Alesmith YuleSmith Summer

YuleSmith Summer Holiday Ale - Pours a hazy orange color with almost no head. A little worried about that, as the bottle didn't seem to have much pressure going on when I popped the cap. Aroma is very nice though, lots of pine and caramel malt character. The taste is sweet, caramel malts with a ton of resin and pine hop flavor coming out in the middle, and some citrusy goodness coming out to play a little too. That resin is the dominating flavor though, and it seems to be driving the bitterness in the finish. It's actually quite nice, and reminiscent of a lighter version of Alesmith's Old Numbskull (their barleywine). Mouthfeel is a little too light on the carbonation, as feared, and it comes off a little sticky, especially in the finish. The carbonation is at a cromulent level, but it could really use a little more of a kick in that respect. It gets better as it warms, but I'd still like to see some more carbonation in this. It's got the markings of a great beer, but it didn't quite get there even if it's certainly very good even like this. Truth be told, once I started drinking, the stuff went down awfully quick! B or B+ (I can't seem to make up my mind...)

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 7/3/12.

Looking closer at the bottle, the text on the back of the bottle sez that this is YuleSmith Holiday Ale 2011? This is actually printed in the description - there doesn't appear to be a bottled-on or best-by stamp on the bottle, so I don't know if this is actually from 2011 or if Alesmith just neglected to update the text on the back of the bottle this year. I wouldn't be surprised if I accidentally bought a year old bottle, as perhaps that would explain the carbonation issues...

Regardless, Alesmith continues to be one of the more interesting breweries out there, and I will most certainly be exploring more of their catalog!

Update: I have it on good authority that the bottle I had here actually was from 2011. Poop. But at least it explains some things about this beer...

Firestone Walker §ucaba

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What can I say, I'm a sucker for fancy-pants packaging. If you're a brewer and you want to trick me into buying your beer, here are a few tips: Cork and cage your beer (whether 375 or 750 ml, doesn't matter) or, if you don't want to do that, cover the cap with something. I actually don't really like the foil stuff, but some sort of cover works - wax-dipped bottles are quite attractive. I will say, most of the time, this makes it hard to open the beer, but for some reason, it makes it more attractive. Another trick: number the bottle, or put other meta-info on the label. Even if it's not limited, it will at least make me take notice. Finally, if you really want me to buy your beer, stick it in a box.

None of this stuff really means anything. The really important part is what's in the bottle, but there's something Pavlovian about a well-packaged beer. Firestone Walker's §ucaba certainly has a lot going for it in this manner. It's in a box. It says it's a "Special Limited Release". The label design is quite attractive. It's got all these fields on it for things like original gravity and IBU and whatnot; it's clearly printed up, but it looks sorta like a hand labeled beer, as if one of Firestone Walker's minions were forced to sit down with a pen and fill out labels for 3000 cases of beer (the label actually sez that's how many cases of this were produced). It's got a black plasticky thing around the cap. It's much nicer than foil caps as they have a really easy way to remove the wrapping from the cap (perhaps not as nice looking as wax dipped bottles, but again, easier to open).

Oh, and the beer inside is pretty awesome too. This beer was originally called Abacus, but due to some wine company owning that name, they had to change it. They settled on reversing the name and using the wacky section symbol (§) for the S, thus §ucaba. The origins of this beer go back to Firestone Walker's anniversary brews. Their initial anniversary batch consisted of a blend of a bunch of barrel-aged strong ales, specifically made for the anniversary beer. Eventually, they started releasing these component brews by themselves, and even bottling them, which is how I came to this beer, a barleywine aged in a variety of barrels (bourbon, wine, and retired Firestone-union barrels):

Firestone Walker Sucaba

Firestone Walker §ucaba - Pours a clear dark rubyish brown color with half a finger of quickly disappearing light colored head. The nose is filled with rich caramel, vanilla, oak, bourbon, maybe even a hint of vinous character. The taste is filled with perfectly balanced rich malts, caramel, vanilla, oak, bourbon, vinous flavors (not quite wine-like), and booze. Amazingly complex stuff. I keep discovering new flavors as I drink, and it evolves as it warms. And yet nothing overpowers anything else, it's really nice. Mouthfeel is smooth, rich, a little sticky... almost creamy. The booze is certainly there and you get that warming factor in your belly, but this is a beer to be savored slowly. Overall, this is an amazing beer. A complex, intense, but still balanced beer. Highly recommended if you can find some. A

Beer Nerd Details: 12.5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber, boxed). Drank out of a snifter on 5/25/12.

Firestone Walker continues to impress. I will always be on the lookout for their beers, and especially their Proprietor's Reserve Series (of which this is a part). I think I've even got some of their Union Jack in my fridge at the moment, so perhaps another review soon.

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

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